The incense wafts in thick coils, redolent and sweet. The smoke creates ghost-like apparitions that drift in the penumbra of this makeshift tabernacle that once served as a barn in the cotton-belt of southeastern Texas.
From the window next to me, I catch the sudden flash of peacock feathers spreading out like a winning hand of poker. The proud bird is perched on a fencepost outside this place where members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church have gathered to worship.
I’ve come to Beasley, Texas to be with them as part of a narrative photo project exploring faith. Much to my surprise, his Grace Alexios Mar Eusebius, the Metropolitan of the Malankara Orthodox, gave me permission to photograph the early Saturday mass. One of the priests has cleared a corner for me to take pictures.
The original idea behind the project was to explore faith using images, from Norman church architecture in the English countryside to more exotic congregations like this in South Texas.
The devotees in Beasley proudly trace their spiritual roots all the way back to St Thomas, the resurrection skeptic who eventually brought the gospel to the sub-continent over two thousand years ago. These orthodox Indians, in turn, have brought their colorful liturgy to the American Bible-belt where church malls and the franchise mentality sometimes dominate the religious landscape of today.
This is also a traditional congregation. Church members peel off their sandals and shoes at the door. The building may appear to lack artifice, but the richly decorated “inner sanctuary” is holy ground. Celebrants worship barefoot.
Mass has just begun, and more women walk in and sit on the right side of the church. They wear the bright saris of India with headscarves. I even spot a couple of church members clad in shalwar kameezes (pantaloons with long tunics). Lost to the majesty of it all, the younger children wiggle in their parents’ arms.
Then we come to the part of the mass where celebrants greet each other. The resonance of Malayalam prayers and rattling cymbals linger in the air. From the front of the church, a young girl breaks away from her mother. I can see her approaching me in my little corner. Her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. The veil covering her dark hair flutters like a patch of blue sky in the shadows. She can’t be more than twelve.
When she stands before me, she raises her fingertips and bows her head.
“She is offering you a ‘kiss of peace,’” the man next to me says.
But I shake my head. I am not part of her devotion. I am a believer, but I am also an ecclesiastical exile. All the other good Christian Soldiers are leading this parade of faith, I tell myself with some bitterness. I am a straggler, limping on the road with all of God’s other walking wounded.
“This is our greeting,” the man adds. He presses his hands together and nods for me to do the same. I clumsily return the girl’s sudden act of kindness. Our fingertips touch in this welcoming gesture for the stranger in their midst.
And in that one moment my heart, grief-worn and dirty with doubt, sees the face of God.
To Be Continued
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
Tom Darin Liskey
Tom Darin Liskey is an author, poet and photo-journalist. More than twenty years of international journalism and business experience gives Tom a unique perspective. That experience abroad has given him a keen eye to appreciate different cultures and locations. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry has been published in literary magazines, both in the US and abroad including two published books.
This article appeared originally in Change Seven literary magazine.
All images © Tom Darin Liskey